Lots of federations make changes following an Olympic year – just look at the spate of coaching replacements around Europe, or the structural shifts which are ongoing at Cross Country Canada – but the U.S. Biathlon Association (USBA) is up for some particularly big moves this season.
The most visible differences are an expanded national team system, with both a development team (currently consisting of two athletes) and an “X” team of two juniors who have already had international success. Those efforts are already started: Maddie Phaneuf, a Maine Winter Sports Center athlete who placed fourth in the youth sprint at this past season’s World Championships, has already moved to Lake Placid.
Another visible change comes in the form of a “tryout” camp for elite junior and senior cross-country skiers to test their skills in biathlon and get introduced to the national team system. That, too, is already underway; USBA CEO Max Cobb said that 12 athletes will be invited to the camp, and “it’s a variety of different ages but we were impressed with the quality of the athletes.”
However, these developments are just the most noticeable and well-promoted symptoms of a deep underlying change at USBA. Cobb and the other staff have been hoping for years to reinvest in a development program, which had been almost completely lacking in the last Olympic cycle. This season, they are finally making it happen.
“I think it was a combination of being able to recognize that we could run our national team program with slightly less resources and still be really effective, especially the year after the Olympics when we don’t have so many special projects in the works, and feeling more confident that our sponsorship and fundraising are more solid and are a more predictable resource for us,” Cobb said in an interview on Wednesday.
The senior national team is small and, with the exception of new addition Casey Smith, consists entirely of athletes who competed in Sochi. Only the six “A” team athletes will be based in Lake Placid, while “B” team athletes are housed at the Maine Winter Sports Center. Having a small, experienced team and no Games to focus on has freed up resources (for instance, in 2012 USBA spent $1.6 million on the national team compared to $365,000 on development, according to the IRS 990 form).
It has also freed up some of the coaching staff’s energy. National team staff will now be involved in the development program instead of only the high performance program. For instance, take Bernd Eisenbichler. The German has been the High Performance Director for the national team for years, but this year has a new title: Chief of Sport.
“In that role, he now has oversight for all the athlete development program as well,” Cobb explained. “That was not part of his scope before now. We’re really excited about that. It gives him a new and fresh challenge, and he’s able now with the stability we have on the national team to manage both of those projects in a really productive way.”
Indeed, Eisenbichler was very enthusiastic about the development programs when reached in Bend a few weeks ago.
“I’m really excited about that, and a big reason why I’m staying with U.S. biathlon is that we have now combined the development system with the high performance system,” Eisenbichler said. “I want to see it. It’s really important that we have one philosophy in training and speak one language for the pipeline so that they can go through it and understand it. I think that was a very necessary step, and it’s a very exciting and a good step.”
Eisenbichler was involved with choosing the direction and the athletes for the development and X teams, and discussed the rationale slightly. With only a few athletes, the X team will be a small training group. That could lead to isolation or burnout of young athletes, but Eisenbichler believed that it was the right approach – and that the squads should expand in the future.
“The aim is to put our recruiting and development effort to a new stage, and through that get more people into the system,” he explained. “For me it doesn’t make sense just to put up numbers if we are not thinking that the level is high enough. This will hurt some people, but we have to be honest. The international level is as high as it has ever been… In fact, in the end, it’s not the best idea to put athletes in the situation where they are overwhelmed by the training load or the training partners. They have to be ready for the level they are getting called to. I think we did that really well this year and I hope that it will get bigger.”
Besides focusing on promising athletes, USBA will also be investing more effort and resources into its regional development structure, including clubs and coaches. As the national team convened in Lake Placid during the first week of May, so did another group.
“We started off with the first regional coach seminar that we’ve done in a long time, and I think we had ten or eleven coaches from Alaska to Maine there,” Cobb said.
Among the participants were recent national team retirees (and several-time Olympians) Sara Studebaker and Jeremy Teela, which Cobb was particularly pleased about.
“It’s great to see those retired athletes wanting to immediately come back and remain active in the sport as a coach,” he said. “And [former national-teamer] Zach Hall has already established himself as a coach up in Anchorage.”
The group had the chance to meet with Eisenbichler and national team coaches Jonne Kähkönen and Jonas Johansson and talk about the larger direction of development for U.S. biathletes.
“We had a meeting with our most important coaches in Lake Placid and overall I think it’s absolutely the right step for a small NGB like ours,” Eisenbichler said. “We cannot go different ways with development. The team must be one. That’s really what it’s about.”
Some efforts to involve the clubs will remain the same as they have always been, for example a weeklong camp in Jericho, Vermont, in August which features North American Rollerski Biathlon Championships. But USBA is also looking for the top regional clubs to host more outreach camps for young racers who have not yet reached the elite level of biathlon. He noted that across the country, such events are already on the schedule (which you can find here).
Cobb hopes that the sum and total of all of these efforts would be a stronger U.S. system in the future, noting that the vast majority of 2014 Olympians benefitted from such efforts earlier in their own careers.
“It was really inspiring to see the pressure from the current national team, saying, ‘you guys have got to do more for development’,” Cobb said. “Saying, ‘when we were young athletes there were programs for us, and that needs to happen again.’ It was really comforting to hear that and it’s a good sign that everyone sees this as a great step forward for us.”
But all of that takes capital, which is one thing which remains problematic for USBA. The Boston-based financial firm State Street is a title sponsor, which Cobb said increased stability, and the U.S. Biathlon Foundation has also changed the fundraising landscape. In 2012, the foundation had a total revenue of $131,000. Still, Cobb said, “financially we’re not really strong.”
Among other things, he hopes to leverage contacts, energy, and man-hours to help the country’s biathlon clubs with their own fundraising.
“The challenge for us is to try to help raise the money locally so that there are dollars behind their good intent,” he said. “So that those coaches can do it at least semi-professionally. That’s definitely a major initiative for us, is to help our regions do successful fundraising, particularly for being able to hire professional coaches.”
Overall, Cobb said, USBA knows that development works. Two of the 2014 Olympians (Studebaker and Susan Dunklee, who went on to claim her first World Cup podium a few weeks later) came into the sport during a recruitment push in 2008 and 2009; others, like Tim Burke, Lowell Bailey, Lanny Barnes, and Annelies Cook, were the product of years-long investment that had started when they were juniors. Revitalizing those programs is a no-brainer, even if it’s not easy.
“We have to really combine these different efforts because we are not in a situation like other nations where we have 20 people lined up waiting for the call for the A team,” Eisenbichler concluded.
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.